In the Land of Ever After

In the Land of Ever After

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Chapter 40 - Work To Be Done

John and Elsa are finally home…but now they have to start fixing things.


By the time Adam, Kristoff and Claude arrived escorting Elsa, the Castle of Arendelle was wide awake and bustling, with people running to and fro. Someone almost immediately appeared to take charge of their horses, and then two guards opened the front doors and John came hurrying out to greet them. He swept Elsa a deep bow. “My lady, welcome home.”

Her response to that was to throw herself into his arms, and then to look him over most thoroughly to make sure he was all right – something Adam wasn’t going to admit he’d been doing since the moment John had come out. “So everything…went well?”

John snorted. “For me, yes. The Chief Councilor didn’t fare so well: someone clapped him in irons and dragged him off somewhere after he tried to come at me with a sword and found out why he wasn’t qualified to do that. I’ll have to remember to send Charming a present to thank him for teaching me to use his father’s wedding gift, the look on Tarben’s face when I disarmed him was priceless. Oh, and we’ve apparently been having a plague of spontaneous dishonor-markings throughout the population these past few months, my cousin’s husband says we’re losing so many he doesn’t know how we’re going to replace them all.”

Adam pressed a hand to the front of his shirt, over his own Mark. “So it goes both ways?”

“Apparently, yes.” He led them inside, where a man not much younger than they were was having a word with one of the guards in the hall; the man hurried over to them at John’s gesture. “Per, this is King Adam of Valeureux and King Kristoff from the Kingdom of the Rock Trolls – and of course my wife, Princess Elsa, Comtesse de Valeureux and King Adam’s sister. Everyone, this is Per Nilsson, my cousin Annalie’s husband. He showed up to aid me earlier, which was much appreciated.”

Per bowed deeply. “Your Majesties, Your Highness.” He saw that his former/future queen looked worried, almost fearful, and he offered her a smile and bowed again. “Princess, allow me to welcome you home on behalf of our people. There are many who will be glad you have returned.” He did his best to ignore the tears those words put in her eyes, although seeing them almost broke his heart. She was barely older than his wife! And rather obviously in the same state as well – no wonder they hadn’t waited to return until summer could make the journey easier.

John smiled, squeezing Elsa’s hand. “We’ve been trying to decide what to do about making the castle habitable – there aren’t that many maids, and the steward who was giving them their orders…is gone now. We’d just decided that it might be better to let Per send for his mother to ask for her input, and in the meantime we’ll all have to make ourselves comfortable in the councilors’ sitting room. It’s just off to one side of their audience chamber, and very richly fitted out – the councilors spared no expense seeing to their own considerable needs, I’m afraid.”

“Velvet robes?” Adam asked, and chuckled when he grimaced and nodded. “I can see why they wanted them, what with the chill these walls seem to be holding, but I agree with you that wool is a better choice.”

“It’s chill here in the hall because we’ve had people going in and out,” John said. “Come on, let’s all go have some tea in the sitting room where it’s warmer. Per…”

The young man shook his head. “I’m going to go fetch Mother, I don’t think delaying will do us any good. But I can already tell you, she’s going to scream when she sees the state of the royal wing.” He nodded to Elsa. “You may end up sleeping in one of our guest rooms until she’s seen it all cleaned and readied to her satisfaction, Your Highness – there’s no way she’ll agree to letting you so much as set foot in there the way it is now.”

Elsa laughed. “We’ve been camping to get here, so I probably wouldn’t have noticed,” she told him. “Please tell her I’d be grateful for her advice. My brother’s staff made sure I knew how to manage things, and even to do some of the work myself if need be, but I’m sure I’m going to need help getting everything under control again after it’s been so long neglected.”

Per was sure his mother was going to be very happy to hear that; there had been rumors that no one had ever taught the princess anything. “I’ll bring her to you, Your Highness,” he said. “She’ll be happy to come, believe me, even though she truly will scream with rage over the mess.” He nodded to John. “Probably best not to tell her where the door to the dungeons is located, in fact. She’ll go down and scream at him, too.”

“I’d let her if it would make her happy, but I’d hate for her to strain her throat,” John said. “Not to mention, I’m sure the dungeons I didn’t even realize we still had are probably more of a mess than the rest of the castle.”

“True.” Per bowed to everyone again. “Your Highness, Your Majesties, I’ll see you again later.”

He hurried out, gathering two of his guards as he went, and Kristoff cleared his throat. “I’m going to go check on Anna and speak to the trolls,” he said. “I don’t think we should delay setting the protections on the castle and grounds, and it would be better they did that while there weren’t many servants in residence.”

“I agree,” John told him. “You’ll be back for the coronation in two days’ time?”

Kristoff raised a skeptical eyebrow. “You really think you can have everything ready in two days?”

John shrugged. “Whether we do or not, we’re still having it – this country has been without rulers long enough, and we’re down to one and a half councilors now as well. A horse might stand still for a short time without someone’s hand on the reins, but after that it’s going to start wandering and eventually become lost.”

That made Kristoff smile, and he hugged his brother-in-law, and then his sister-in-law and Adam, and he shook Claude’s hand – he’d found he quite liked the plain-spoken huntsman over the past few days they’d traveled together. “In two days, then,” he said. “If something goes wrong, though…”

“We’ll all be riding for the Kingdom of the Rock Trolls,” Adam assured him. “Or at least sending a messenger. I don’t think there’s going to be much trouble right now, though – everyone’s going to be reeling once the news gets around.”

“Yes, but eventually they’ll stop reeling,” Kristoff warned. “And the gossiping citizens of Arendelle aren’t the trouble I was worrying about. Just be careful.”

“We will,” Elsa promised. “You be careful riding back – and say hello to Sven for me.”

He smiled again. “I will. I’ll even bring him to the coronation so you can see him – Anna likes to ride in the sledge when he pulls it.”

He took his leave of them as well, striding back out through the front doors which the guards hurriedly opened for him, and John ushered Adam, Elsa and Claude into the audience chamber and then into the smaller but even more richly appointed room to one side of it. There was a fine tiled stove there, rich hangings covering the stone walls and equally rich rugs covering the floor, as well as comfortable chairs and a couch adorned plentifully with tasseled and embroidered cushions. Two gleaming brass teakettles were sitting on the stove’s top, and John tested one of them before pouring everyone a cup and then pouring himself more in the cup he’d apparently already been using. Adam started a little after his first taste. It was good, oddly spicy but much, much stronger than he was used to. “What kind of tea is this?”

John smiled. “Ship’s, because that’s where it comes from – it’s what the sailors drink, and because it’s cheap to obtain in quantity it’s what all the servants here drink as well. They keep a big jar of it in the pantry, and the cook throws in all of the little odds and ends of spice and dried peel, so its flavor is actually very particular to this castle’s kitchen. Want more water?”

“Please.” John added more to his cup from the other kettle, and Adam sipped again. “Better, thank you. It’s good, but it’s a lot stronger than what we drink at home.” He raised an eyebrow at his friend. “Is that why you usually don’t put anything in your tea?”

“No, I’m just not used to putting things in my tea – we usually didn’t have anything available to put in it,” John told him. “That’s why the cook throws in the spices, you know.”

“Makes sense.” Adam took another drink. “So the first order of business is to find rooms fit to sleep in?”

“I’ll take care of that,” Elsa said before John could say anything. “Our father’s chambers can’t be much more than just severely dusty, they’ve been sealed since he left. I’ll have those cleaned and aired first, and if need be Adam can sleep in our mother’s chambers. Have you been to your office yet?” she asked John.

He grimaced. “I’m afraid to go in there, honestly – I’m sure they’ve made ten different kinds of mess out of the books, Councilor Erling said as much. I did check Chief Councilor Tarben’s office, however, and found enough damning things just on his desk that I ordered the room sealed until Adam could help me go through it all more thoroughly. We’ll do that this afternoon, I think, just to make sure there aren’t any immediate surprises we need to be aware of. Councilor Erling is in his rooms, by the way, no doubt trying to decide if he’d rather go mad or apologize or just flee the country altogether. The Mark,” he explained. “It happened right in front of me. He was raging and said he’d kill me with his own hands before he took a knee to me, and then he screamed and fell on the ground when the Mark formed under his robes. He’s from one of the blooded families, you see, so he definitely knew better.”

Adam frowned. “He didn’t already have a Mark?”

“Most of them don’t, not anymore.” John shook his head. “Per said they wear it engraved on a pendant, and the pendant is passed down from father to son. He said my uncle’s was gold, but it went missing right about the time I was made head of the family line and apparently Karl just hadn’t thought much about it until the night Lord Sel showed up to visit him.” He took another drink of his tea, very obviously savoring the taste of it, and Adam hid a smile in his own cup. “Lord Sel Marked Per, though, the same way he did us, and then Per asked him to also Mark his captain of the guard, which he did. Even when it’s just the pendant, though, or just a member of the line, you can hear a ringing like little bells when you get near anyone from a blood-marked family – and if they’re disloyal, the bells will ring off-key.”

“Oh so that’s what that noise was. I heard it when you introduced us to Per. Your uncle’s name was Karl?”

John smirked. “Still is, unless his brother-in-law in the Danes has killed him already. Karl Lorensson is his name, and my mother’s was Katarina – hence the ‘K’ standing in for her name in all the records. They don’t have any portraits of her, apparently my grandfather on that side had them all destroyed, but Per did say he was going to bring me the portrait they have of the first head of my line, Ari Torson. He says Karl had the painting wrapped and hidden away in a cellar, he was so afraid someone was going to see it and realize I was the heir.”

“I’m surprised he didn’t destroy it.” Although perhaps the man had thought the heirloom would only need to be hidden temporarily, or he’d just forgotten about it. “I’m glad he didn’t, though, because I’m looking forward to seeing it. Lord Sel mentioned that you strongly resembled your ancestor.”

“Yes, Per says Ari and I look enough alike to be brothers,” John agreed. “He had blue eyes, though. I’ll like to see their house someday, he’s said to have built a good deal of it himself.”

“I doubt our ancestor,” Adam raised his cup in Elsa’s direction, “did the same for this castle. I know you’d both said it was large, and so had Anna, but this is even bigger than I’d imagined.”

“I’m sure it seems excessive, but there’s a good reason for that. I’ll show you,” John told him. He drained the rest of his tea and stood up, leaning over to kiss his wife’s cheek. “Don’t go anywhere without Claude, all right?”

She kissed him back. “I won’t. You be careful too.”

“As careful as I can, sweetheart. Claude, if a man who looks too yellow for his robes comes skulking around, that’s Councilor Fritjof and he’s three kinds of a whining idiot. You don’t have to do anything he says, especially not if he says he wants to speak to the princess alone – I don’t want either one of you to be alone with him for any reason, because I’m not sure how far he might go to support Tarben.”

“Oh, one of those.” Claude was nodding. “I’ll stay with her, my lord. Any other orders?”

John smiled, shaking his head. “No, just that – and it’s not so much violence I’m concerned about, it’s lies and rumors. We’ll be back in a little while.”

Adam had hastily swallowed more of his own tea, and he got up and followed John out into the audience chamber. He waited until they were well away from the sitting room’s closed door to ask the question that had been bothering him ever since they’d met John on the castle’s front steps. “You’re upset about something, what is it?”

John shook his head with a sigh. “The Royal Steward isn’t here anymore because he hung himself in the pantry before you arrived…but after I did. I’d known him all my life, Adam. We weren’t friends, but we’d worked together for so long and I thought there was a mutual respect between us – he’d even supported the Grand High Chancellor in appointing me to my father’s position! And then I find that he knew…well, everything, and said nothing to me, although he spoke of it to others and received Lord Sel’s mark of disfavor for it. Jor, the butler, was there and saw it happen.” He shook his head again. “I just don’t understand any of this, it makes no logical sense.” A throat clearing startled them both, and they turned to see a tall, white-haired old man with stooped shoulders standing there just inside the door. “Jor, did you need something?”

“Only to speak with you,” the old man said. “My Lord, these goings-on make no sense because they’re senseless, there’s no logic to them.” His hands were clasped in front of him, but still shaking. “I’ve worked here since the days following the plague, I saw the corruption take root and grow like a weed throughout this castle and the town. There was no stopping it, and few desired to as in those days the rewards for turning a blind eye were many. In later years, though, the wrongs done to so many were piled too high for me to stand. I tried to tell those I could, but they dismissed my words.” He grimaced. “Those who did have apparently paid for that.”

John moved closer to him. “Stefan called you a traitor, didn’t he?” The old man nodded, and John placed a hand on his shoulder. “I call you a friend, Jor – apparently the only one I had here, although I didn’t know it. And I know you’re of an age to retire…but I’d consider it a personal favor if you stayed on for a time to help us get things running the way they should be. Will you consider it? Someone has to take over Stefan’s duties, and right now you’re the only man I’d trust.”

Jor gasped, tears starting in his eyes. “But, my lord…I’m a drunkard.”

“You’re not drunk now,” John pointed out. “I’ll trust you to do the job unless you tell me you can’t, Jor.”

The effect those words had on the old man was astounding. He straightened, determination setting his jaw, and Adam saw what he must have been all those years ago – and what he could have been, had Arendelle not been overtaken by greed and corruption. He took a step back, and bowed. “Lord Kepperson, for you I’ll do it. Orders for the kitchen, or aught else?”

John smiled. “Probably a question you should ask the princess rather than me, as I know she wants to get things back in order sooner rather than later. I’ll speak with you this evening about the coronation ceremony we’re going to have to hold two days from now – I’ll want to make sure it’s nothing like the last one, and of necessity the guest list is going to be much smaller. And as for the kitchen…well, you know I’m not picky and King Adam isn’t either, but the princess has a somewhat delicate stomach just now, so probably best to keep our meals simple for the time being.” Jor’s eyes widened, and John blushed. “We have been married since last autumn, Jor.”

That made the old man smile. “Of course, my lord. I’ll tell the cook, she’ll know just what to do for that.”

He took his leave, and John turned back to Adam with a sigh. “Well, that’s one thing taken care of, anyway.”

“And very well taken care of,” Adam told him, patting his shoulder. “Not to mention, you know the kitchen staff will see to spreading the good news.”

“Oh, I’m sure of it.” John managed a smile. “And I’m counting on it. There’s no way we’ve routed all of the traitors, but they’ll have to stay any plans they may have once word gets around that an heir is already on the way – it wouldn’t go over well with our people if someone tried to kill the queen when she’s with child, no matter what their private opinion of their queen may be.”

Adam nodded. “That’s a good use of gossip, then. So, what were you going to show me?”

“The grounds, but I’ll do that on the way out and back,” John told him. “Are you up for a walk? I asked one of the guards earlier if any of the Northmen were in port, and they said there’s a ship docked right now – but she might not be for much longer. I need to go speak with her captain.”

“About attending the coronation?” Adam guessed, and he nodded. “Yes, that’s worth a walk. Guards?”

“No, that would show bad faith. And we shouldn’t need them, no one in the town is going to look twice at two well-dressed strangers heading to the docks – the advantage of Arendelle being a well-traveled port. A few days from now we wouldn’t be able to get away with it, but for today we’re safe.” They both checked their swords, though, before putting their cloaks back on and navigating their way through the castle by routes Adam had to assume were the ones John had used years ago when he wasn’t a noble who could simply stride to the front doors by the shortest and most visible route.

They had exited by a small side door into a huge, still-frozen garden when Adam had a thought. “What if Elsa want us for something?”

John smiled. “She knows we’re going. I’d already warned her that if any of the Northmen were about my window of opportunity for securing their support might be small and quick to close. And we shouldn’t be gone long at all, because we’re mainly just offering an invitation. Just trust me, you’ll see.”

“Of course I trust you – on everything except acknowledging the state of your own well-being, that is, you’re rather bad at that.”

That made John snort, but he didn’t try to claim otherwise. They went through the garden and found another small door set into the wall – a stone door which required a key, which John handily had attached to his belt. “Servants’ gate,” he explained. “It just wouldn’t do for the servants to use the main hall as a thoroughfare, or the main gate. My having a master key to these little doors was what allowed me to get Elsa out of the castle that night before the mob could catch up to us – their route was limited, mine wasn’t.”

“What if they’d changed the locks?”

“They can’t, at least not without taking that entire portion of the wall down – the wall is over a hundred years old, Adam, and the mechanisms of the locks were embedded in it while it was being built. They’re solid iron, bolted to posts which are sunk down into the ground nearly as deep as I am tall.” He smiled, although it was rather grim. “Generations ago some little Danish noble with aspirations too big for him thought he could sneak in and take over bloodlessly in the middle of the night, so he had his men row into port on a moonless night and then approach the walls with battering rams made from fire-hardened wood, thinking that surely they could pound in the doors without much trouble. When the guards told the king at that time what was happening, he went out himself in his sleeping clothes and sat on top of the wall to watch them until the sun was rising and they’d worn themselves out, and then he sent his guards out to apprehend them. According to the story he had them all stripped naked, herded back onto their ship and sent home with a message thanking their king for ‘an amusing evening’s diversion’.”

Adam laughed. “Remind me to take back a book of Arendelle’s history when I go home, it sounds like it would make for entertaining reading. So the castle is built to repel invaders?”

“And as shelter from storms similar in size to the one that chased us off the southern beaches,” John confirmed. “The entire population of Arendelle can shelter inside these walls if necessary – and they have on occasion, although not in my lifetime.”

They’d cautiously gone through the little stone door, which was then re-locked behind them, and Adam was surprised to see that they were actually standing on the outskirts of the town, which had apparently grown up nearly to its castle’s walls. John led him down an alley and then up a street which ran ruler-straight between rows of buildings, some of which were shops and others which looked to be homes but which had painted signs hanging above their doors proclaiming the owner’s business. The streets were cobblestone and luckily so, because it was shaping up to be a rather wet, foggy day and it looked like half the population of Arendelle was out gossiping. Just as John had told him, though, no one even gave them a second glance as they strolled quickly toward the docks like men with business on their minds. Which they were, of course – it was just royal business rather than a matter of trade.

The docks were somewhat fascinating to Adam, as he had never seen such a thing in his life. For one thing, they were huge. The sturdy-looking piers were supported by pillars which were so big around Adam had trouble imagining the size the living trees must have been. There were rough if equally sturdy buildings nearby, warehouses where goods were loaded or unloaded, and a few rougher-looking businesses near them which he supposed were for the convenience of seamen who might not wish to venture too far from their docked homes. Three ships were in the dock this day, and one of them was formed from dark wood and had a creature carved into her tall, gracefully curved bow which looked to be a stylized bear. That same creature, in slightly more proportional form, was represented on the red, green and gold flag flying over the deck, and sea-weathered ornaments painted on the ship’s sides looked to be in those same colors. John walked right out on the pier to where a sort of ramp was propped on it, offering a short bow to the seaman sitting beside it, carving something into the side of an oar. “We need to speak to your captain,” he said. “There was…something of a coup this morning at the castle, and I have news he may wish to bring to his ruler.”

“We had heard something was going on,” the man replied, and moved aside the bucket which had been sitting in front of the ramp, blocking it. “Go on up. Captain Dezhnev is on deck, last I heard him yelling at someone – he will be the one with the dog growling at you from beside his leg.” He saw the face Adam made at that and raised a graying black eyebrow. “You do not care for dogs?”

Adam shook his head. “They don’t care for me, I’m afraid – I’d like them just fine if they did. Hopefully this one is made of sterner stuff than the last one I encountered and won’t try to jump over the nearest wall to get away from me.”

“Hmm,” was the seaman’s response, and then to their surprise he put the oar he’d been carving into the bucket and tucked away his knife. “I will go up with you, then. This I want to see.”

He preceded them up the ramp and onto the deck, which was newly-scrubbed from the look of it and had one or two seamen hard at work doing other necessary things occupying various portions of its surface. A black-haired and black-bearded man of medium height but with broad shoulders came down from the wheel when he saw them, raising an eyebrow at the accompanying seaman. “Dimitry, why have you left the dock?”

Their seaman, Dimitry, nodded to him. “Something which needed to be seen with my own eyes, Captain. These men are from the castle. What we heard was correct, there was something going on this morning. They say they have news for the tsar.”

“He is not here,” the captain said. He looked the two newcomers up and down. “You look familiar to me,” he told John.

John nodded. “Two years ago, I was the Royal Bookkeeper of Arendelle, Captain Dezhnev; two days from now, I’ll be her king.”

Dezhnev snorted. “Quite a lot can happen in two days, but it is good someone is finally tired of seeing that throne empty. And this one?”

Adam offered him a short bow. “King Adam of Valeureux – Lord Kepperson is married to my sister, Princess Elsa of Arendelle.”

That caused some little surprise, and John shrugged. “It’s a long story,” he told the captain. “One I’d be happy to share with you, although not today. I came today to ask if you wished to attend the coronation on behalf of your ruler, as he isn’t here himself and there’s not enough time for him to get here – and for that matter, probably not enough gold left in the treasury to properly entertain him if he did come, as I returned this morning to find the councilors wearing velvet robes whose cost most likely could have fed the servants meat every day for a year.”

The captain took that in, nodding slowly. “You want our alliance.”

“Yes, I do,” John responded. “The Danes have learned to have little respect for Arendelle, and I am about to teach them the error of their ways – starting by sending Chief Councilor Tarben back to them in chains, as he has been working for their interests over ours for years. I do not ask that you or your king take part in this teaching – that’s my responsibility. But I would ask of the tsar that we make a pledge between us to be allies for the good of both our countries. I offer the protection of our harbor and free access to our markets, which are about to be enlarged with goods to trade from the countries King Adam and I were granted good terms with as we traveled through the lands to the south and east of Valeureux, as well as from Valeureux herself. You have heard of the Ruby Market?”

That really did take the man aback. “That is just a legend!”

“No, that’s the Rubis Marché, in my home kingdom,” Adam corrected politely. “We were under a curse for more than a decade which made everyone forget we existed.” A black-and-white dog with a longish shaggy coat and a curled tail arching over its back had come slinking up beside the captain’s leg, and one sniff in Adam’s direction set it to baring its teeth and whining deep in its throat; he rolled his eyes. “And here’s another legacy the curse left, unfortunately.”

The seaman Dimitry chuckled. “Well, I see you were not lying about dogs not liking you.”

“Dimitry!” This time the captain rolled his eyes. “Is that why you came up here? I will have you following Ivor around as his body servant until our next port.”

“His name is Ivor?” Adam went down to one knee, and the dog growled; he slowly and cautiously held out his hand. Asher’s stablemaster also kept dogs, and he’d taken some pains to teach Adam how best to approach the members of their hunting pack. “Ivor,” he said, locking eyes with the frightened animal. “It’s all right, I won’t hurt you.”

Ivor sniffed again, and inched closer. He finally came right up to the outstretched hand…and then broke eye contact, baring his throat with a whine. Adam responded to this by stroking the black-and-white head and allowing the dog to lick his hand, then ruffling the gradually straightening ears. “Oh my, you are a good dog, aren’t you?”

Captain Dezhnev seemed rather more in shock over this than he had any of the other revelations he’d just been receiving. “Ivor is a Karelian hunting hound – bred to hunt bears,” he said. “He has never submitted to any creature besides me, not even to the wild wolves.” Adam gave the dog another pat and stood back up, and the captain gave him a considering look. “I have heard another legend about a cursed kingdom, but I thought it was in the northern hills where the flame-haired barbarians live.”

“Same fairy, different kingdom,” Adam told him, just managing not to sigh; was there nowhere that story hadn’t been heard? “You’re thinking of the Castle of Ballanshire, whose master was turned into a Beast and died in that form as punishment for his monstrous ways. Valeureux’s curse was put on for a different reason, and as you can see, it was broken.”

“Ivor seems to think you kept at least some of it,” the other man countered. “But I will not argue the point. So your only request here today is that I attend your coronation as a witness two days hence?”

“Yes, and take news of it and my request for alliance back to your ruler. Still Tzar Ivan?” John asked, and the captain nodded. “You may bring some of your men as well if you like. It won’t be a very large ceremony, and I’m just hoping it won’t be an exciting one.”

That made Dezhnev laugh. “You have just jinxed yourself, saying that. Be sure you have made plans for excitement, as you are almost certain to get some now.” He considered a moment more, stroking his beard, then held out his hand; if he was somewhat surprised when John shook it readily, and Adam did as well, he didn’t show it. “I will be there, and bring those of my men who can behave in company. What token shall I give for our entrance?”

“Just say you’re there on behalf of Tsar Ivan,” John told him. “I’ll be telling the guards to expect you. If you like, though, I can send my man Claude down with a written invitation, that way you’ll have something more than memories to bring to your king as proof of what went on here.”

“Do that,” Dezhnev requested. “I will be here. What kind of servant is he?”

“He’s my huntsman,” John supplied. “He volunteered to come with us from Valeureux, he said there wasn’t enough game there for his taste and he thought I might need a man who was skilled enough with his gun to take down a charging bear.”

“If the castle is as gold-poor as you think, you are likely to need him sooner rather than later,” Dezhnev observed good-naturedly. “Very well, then, I will see you in two days…and then we will see what news I will be carrying back to the tsar concerning the throne of Arendelle.”

The two younger men both favored him with a short bow and then made their way back down to the pier, and Dezhnev went back up to the wheel to think; Dimitry followed him. “Well, Captain?”

“We will go,” Dezhnev said. “Four men will go with me – and you are not to be one of them. I will want strong swords, just in case.”

“You think there will be trouble.”

“Oh, I am sure there will be,” the captain told him, smiling just a little. “They lack numbers, or he would not have come himself. You realize who it is he has married? The Ice Queen has no need of swords, or witnesses, perhaps not even allies…but this man, he does things as a mortal ruler of a small kingdom rather than as the consort of a deadly witch who could kill with the merest flick of her fingers. He reaches first for an olive branch and extends it to those whom his enemies fear instead of hiding behind the skirts of his wife. He is a wise man, I think.”

“And the other?”

“Gave honor to a bookkeeper and chose him as husband for his sister. I want to hear the story of these men, and this queen, and I believe Cousin Ivan will as well. If they are as I suspect, our alliance with them could be profitable indeed,” his smile widened, “and not just in gold or goods.”

 

Far beneath the bustle of the castle in a dungeon nobody could remember ever having used, the former Chief Councilor of Arendelle was sitting in his cell, fuming. The little upstart who thought he could be king – like anyone who wasn’t a superstitious fool was going to accept that – had said he meant to exile him, but Tarben couldn’t think that was actually going to happen. There was no proof that young John belonged to the line he was claiming to be head of, and Tarben knew it because he’d helped destroy any evidence which might have linked them years before. He himself was the only person left who’d known everything, he was sure of it. Known about the ridiculous marriage plot their former queen had cooked up twenty-odd years ago, known how old Loren Andresson had jumped at the chance to get his sickly eldest daughter out of the line of succession, known that Katarina Lorensdottir had been basically made to disappear on her marriage to old Sir Jonas. It had been expedient to do so, as it had cleared the way for Karl Lorensson to become head of that family line, which was what his father had wanted. Not that Karl hadn’t wanted it, because he’d wanted it quite a bit; but still, it had been his father’s idea and that idea had been given to his father by Queen Astrid.

Who had gotten it from Tarben, although no one knew that. She’d wanted a match for the old bookkeeper and Tarben had feared what might happen if she demanded the hand of one of the current worthies’ more eligible – read more valuable – daughters, so he’d scouted around for a blooded but unwanted daughter and found Katarina, and then he’d let his queen know that she could demand a daughter from Loren Andresson and with a few simple concessions he’d happily agree to give her his eldest. The disastrous inclusion demanding the marriage bear fruit had been all her idea, though. She’d laughed about it, the queen, about the idea of stiff old Sir Jonas having to perform in his marriage bed. The King’s Chancellor had been disgusted by the whole situation – privately, but it had shown on his face – and had not been at all amused when she’d demanded that Tarben be named Chief Councilor for his assistance with her plan.

Tarben had only refrained from telling his queen about this reaction in hopes of further elevating his position because, in truth, he’d been afraid the chancellor might kill him if he did. He hadn’t been a man to try, Lord Aronson, not unless you wished to lose – badly. Tarben hadn’t been sorry when he’d died, as that had cleared the way for him to see more of his own ideas put into play, but he could admit that the man had been a strong, loyal servant of the Crown and that Arendelle had suffered for his loss.

Which had gone well with Tarben’s plans, of course. He’d been so close! His contacts in the Danish court had been whispering in their king’s ear on his behalf for years now, and he knew he’d only needed to wait a little longer before sending word that the princess was dead and then Arendelle could have quietly taken her place in the Danish commonwealth. Some of the people might not have liked it, but once the gold had started to flow and their town had become a rich, bustling city he’d been sure most of them would have come around. Not the superstitious ones, of course, who were dedicated to the idea that an ancient sea god had founded Arendelle, but the reasonable ones who knew what wealth meant had already let him know that they were accepting of his plan.

Of course, most of them were gone now. Karl Lorensson had been the first, but he’d been followed by others. Some had left, others had become reclusive, and one had gone mad and thrown himself off the docks. And then Councilor Erling had been felled right in front of him…well, Tarben didn’t understand that. He knew magic was real, of course, he wasn’t a fool, but he also didn’t believe John Kepperson had any. He was having a hard enough time believing the boy had not only come back, but had confronted him right in the audience chamber and then violently disarmed him.

The small fact that John had only disarmed him instead of just killing him and being done with it was also confusing…but perhaps somewhat heartening as well. The boy was the misbegotten get of a foolish queen’s bored fancy, raised to take his father’s place in the old counting room and nothing else. Whatever motive this supposed elder son of their king and queen might have had by raising his rank, that hadn’t given a bookkeeper knowledge of how to run a kingdom. And it wasn’t like the princess was going to be able to help him, she was barely able to read and write! So perhaps this little incident was a more advantageous thing than he’d originally thought. Being exiled wasn’t a hardship to a man who had friends; he would go to one of them and then have them take him to see the High King. If the Danes moved quickly, they could take Arendelle while the boy and his royal witch were still trying to figure out what they were doing, kill them both, and then start setting the country to rights.

He sighed. It really was a pity the boy had lived to interfere. They’d been so certain the princess would kill him! Tarben still wasn’t sure why she hadn’t…

“Why would I have?” The sweet voice answering what Tarben had thought he’d only voiced in his head startled him badly, and he looked up to see the princess standing before the barred door to his cell. She didn’t look at all like she had the last time he’d seen her – she was wearing foreign finery, a gown of a much fuller cut than was the upper-class fashion in Arendelle, and she almost looked plump. Her white-gold hair was coiled around her head like a crown, and into it was pinned a gold circlet worked into the shape of a twisted branch with gold-traced leaves and ruby fruit. She was gazing at him with curious blue eyes that still had a rather dangerous heat in them. “He was helping me, and I was grateful. And even knowing as little as I did, I could tell he was good at his job. So why did you want him dead?”

Perhaps he could do something with this. “My dear princess, nobody wanted him dead,” Tarben assured her in his most ingratiating tone. “Whatever lies he told you…well, they were just that: lies. We sent him to speak with you because he could be spared from his duties and the rest of us couldn’t, that was all. You were rather…volatile at that time, if you’ll recall.” He put on a very thoughtful face and shook his head. “I never thought the boy was quite right, but I never imagined he was as bad as that. Did he also try to tell you there was a plot to kill you as well? I’m sure he did.”

She smiled at him. “Actually, he tried very hard not to tell me that, Chief Councilor: he did not want to upset me. But as I gained an education I began to suspect that something had been left out of the story he’d told me that night, and once it was confirmed I called on Olaf’s snow that I might speak with him and discovered the truth.”

She’d done what? “That thing…it was an abomination! The people were terrified of it…”

“He was harmless unless I’d wanted him not to be,” she corrected. “And most of the people had never even seen him. So you killed him because you were afraid of him, not to mention making sure the fire would do it, is that what it was?”

Tarben huffed. “More lies. I didn’t kill anyone.”

She inclined her head, acknowledging that. “You gave the order, that puts his death on your head, Chief Councilor. You were planning to have me killed as well, of course…and that is treason.”

“I would have had every right,” he countered primly. “You attacked the entire country!”

“By accident,” she corrected again. “You also conspired to have the duly appointed Royal Bookkeeper killed, and you have used the meager contents of the royal treasury to live a life of luxury while the other servants worked only for their keep.” She indicated the robe he was wearing. “Velvet requires special care, the expense simply isn’t worth it for any but the most special of occasions. Not to mention silk and wool wear so much better.”

Tarben folded his arms across his velvet-covered chest, the gold embroidery on the wide cuffs of his robe glinting in the light of the corridor’s lantern. “Did you come down here to lecture me about fashion, Princess? Because I can tell you right now, the worthies of Arendelle will turn their noses up in disgust at the gown you’re wearing.”

To his surprise, she shrugged. “Why would I care about that? And I was lecturing you about excess, Councilor, not fashion, and about putting your own desires before the  needs of your people – and despite your descendancy, by your oaths they are your people as well as ours.”

He was taken aback. Where had the childish, uneducated princess gone? She sounded…

…Like a queen. A mature, intelligent queen who could easily stop an invading force with a flick of her finger, freezing the harbor to keep the ships out – or freezing the ships in place so they could not dock. Tarben swallowed. He wasn’t going to be speaking to the Danes’ High King – the man would laugh at him for even suggesting that he involve himself in such a situation, if not have him killed on the spot. “What do you want from me, then?”

She cocked her head. “Honestly? I just wanted to see where they had you and what conditions you were being kept in. It seems somewhat chill and damp, but you have that fine thick robe so I’m sure the cold isn’t troubling you too much. And I did want to ask you why you’d wanted our Royal Bookkeeper dead, but I suppose you’ve answered that question for me already so I really don’t have anything else to say to you.”

She turned and walked away from the cell, moving out of his sight, and suddenly a kind of mania seized him. She was just leaving him here, just like that!? He all but threw himself at the bars, wrapped his hands around them. They were cold, icy cold. “He should never have been born!” he yelled after her. “Much less given any sort of position – his entire existence was nothing but a cruel joke of the queen’s! It would have been better for everyone if he’d been drowned at birth, and his father would agree!”

Silence. Rather shocked at himself, he let go of the bars and went to sink back down on the end of the cot, shaking. “He would,” he whispered. “That old goat hated the child that was forced on him, hated the wife, hated everyone except the queen who was responsible for it all.”

“You forgot to add yourself to that equation,” a deep, hollow voice said, making him jump again and look around wildly. Nobody was there. A chuckle sounded, raising the hairs on the back of his neck. “Oh, Tarben, you truly are a fool if you thought I didn’t know whose hand chose Katarina for the queen’s cruel game. And we were all fools, all of us, for choosing blind loyalty over reason and sense.”

And that was when a patch of pale light grew along the damp stones of the wall, and the ghostly image of an old man’s lined face poked out, much like a person looking around the edge of a doorway. The face was familiar to Tarben, but where there should have been eyes were only fathomless black holes. “No, you’re…you’re dead! The witch is doing this, it’s all magic and games, you’re long dead!”

The shade stepped the rest of the way through his ‘door’, brushing absently at his somewhat shabby coat. He’d been tall in life, and spare, and he really looked very little like his more compactly-built son. Except perhaps for a certain set of his jaw, that was, as stubbornness was a trait he had certainly passed down in full measure. The black hole eyes fixed on Tarben, who almost threw himself from the cot to press himself against the far wall. The shade did not advance further, however, but merely stood there staring at him. And then it looked around, up through the ceiling apparently, and grimaced slightly. “The books are a mess. Someone has much to answer for.”

Tarben thought fast. “Y-your son, he abandoned his post…”

“I know – and I know his reasoning.” The black hole eyes swung back down. “He chose as a man who had no choices left save bad ones, and his decision was the best he could make.” The shade cocked his head. “You think I would fault him for saving two kingdoms and gaining the favor of the lords of the sea? I was bitter in life, yes, and cold toward my son as the years had leached all warmth from me…but I did not hate him, nor wish he had not been born. Nor did I hate his poor mother, sadly used creature that she was. You, however…” He made as though to take a step forward, long arm reaching out to point, and Tarben almost soiled himself. “You, vile snake that you are, you I hate. If I had one fault to find with my son, it would be that he did not run you through when he had the chance – for if ever there was a time when I would have wished impulse to rule him rather than consideration, it would have been in that moment. The thought of you being sent away in chains, wretched and despised by all who see you, is my only consolation.”

“He won’t chain me! I am the Chief Councilor of Arendelle!”

“You are a traitor to the Crown and the kingdom and to everything that makes a man,” the shade of Sir Jonas Kepperson corrected, but mildly, as though offering correction to one too simple to absorb a stronger rebuke. His arm had fallen back to his side. “My son and his wife will not be cruel to you, but neither will they be overly kind – they will send a message, to the town, to the Danes, and to all others who should hear that the days of Arendelle ignoring the insults given to her are over, and that the days of her being run by a king with sense have come again.” He cocked his head again, taking a step back and in doing so disappearing partway through the wall. “Did you know the horse my son took to spirit his princess to safety, he took as weregild for the insult given to her by the Prince Hans? Bookkeepers always seek balance, Tarben Jorsten – to do otherwise is not in our nature. Remember that in the days to come.”

And then he was just gone, as though he’d never been there at all. Tarben started to return to the cot, then thought better of it and instead slid down the wall to huddle within his velvet robes, shivering. He’d never believed in ghosts…but then, he’d not believed in the gods either. And never would he have believed that the shade of a blind bookkeeper could cause him to know such fear as he now felt.

 

In a place that somewhat…wasn’t, but was yet within the castle’s walls, Jonas bowed to Ari. “Thank you for that.”

“You’re the boy’s father, it was your place to take.” Ari shrugged. “You’re still determined to do what you proposed?”

Jonas nodded. “It’s the least I can do. After that tale you told me…well, I owe my son a happier memory of his father than the one he defied in the dark woods that night.” He smirked, the corners of his brown eyes crinkling. “Bookkeepers do always seek balance, you know.”

“Oh believe me, I know,” Ari told him. “John and his brother-in-law are just now on their way back from seeking it with the Northmen.”

“The one force on the waves the Danes don’t dare anger,” Jonas approved. He stretched. “Well, I’ve work to do. The coronation?”

“In two days time. I’ll come find you.”

“I thank you for that as well.” Jonas bowed again before disappearing, and after one final approving look into the dungeon with its cowed and quaking occupant Ari did as well.

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